“The Sichuan peppercorn”, food writer Marryam Reshii writes in her new book, ‘The Flavour Of Spice’, “is not really a pepper at all, but the fruit of a bush called prickly ash”. The genus of a Sichuan peppercorn, Reshii notes, includes too many species to name-one of these can be found in Nepal, while another closer to home on the west coast is the tepal or triphal.
The Sichuan peppercorn’s mouth-numbing properties, also referred to as ‘mah’ is what makes it such a strange but not unpleasant ingredient to add to your food. In Chinese cooking where it is added whole, the ‘mah’ sensation is amplified because the peppercorns aren’t ground, as opposed to coastal cooking where it is ground with chillies and coconut to make a marinade for fish, as so.
Some of the simplest and most satisfying results when cooking can be achieved when you use only a few ingredients. If you bring home a fresh fish, and really need to taste its sweet flesh, you don’t overpower it with too many ingredients and unnecessarily distract the palate. You keep it simple.
Sichuan Peppercorn and Chilli Fish Curry
While I made this with king mackerel or surmai, you can also try making this dish using rawas (Indian salmon), Rani fish (Indian snapper) or even little fresh sardines whose oily, fishy flavour would go superbly with the chillies and peppercorns. For a different taste, add up till 1/2 cup freshly grated coconut to the paste when grinding and continue as instructed.
King mackerel/kingfish/surmai 650-700g
Salt for salting the fish, plus more for finishing
Turmeric powder 1/2 tsp
Sichuan peppercorns 10-12
Dried Red chillies 10-12
Tamarind 2 tbsp paste from golf-ball sized tamarind soaked in hot water
Coconut oil 3 tbsp
Onion 1 large or 2 small, finely chopped
Clean the fish well after bringing it home from the fishmonger by rinsing it, then salt the surface of the fish and rub it with turmeric as well. Set this aside.
Toast the Sichuan peppercorns and the dried red chillies for a few minutes, then transfer to the mixer grinder with the tamarind paste and loosen it with up till 1/4 cup of water.
In a medium saucepan or a kadai, add in the coconut oil and place over medium high heat. When hot, add in the onions and reduce the heat to a medium-low and let the onions brown considerably without not letting it burn.
Once the onions are brown, add the ground paste, a good sprinkling of salt and a cup of water. Bring this up to a boil, and once it does, add in the pieces of fish and reduce the heat to low, put a lid on and leave this to simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through.
Check for salt and serve with rice or rotis and some wedges of lime.